Chapter-a-Day Numbers 2

vlag van de provincie Zuid Holland
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The People of Israel did everything the way God commanded Moses: They camped under their respective flags; they marched by tribe with their ancestral familiesNumbers 2:34 (MSG)

My great-grandfather came to the United States around 1885. He was a young man and he travelled alone. This meant that my “tribe” got somewhat of a fresh start when he came to the U.S. From what I’ve been able to gather over the years, there was limited correspondence between my great-grandfather and his family remaining back in the Netherlands. My grandfather even visited his cousins in the Netherlands at one point, but then the link was then lost for a couple of generations. With the help of the internet, I found my cousin, John, about a decade ago and “tribal communication” across the Atlantic was restored.

I’ve heard it said “you can choose your friends, but you’re stuck with your family.” I’ve found it to be a true statement. Even if you do what my grandfather did to change the spelling of your name and move by yourself to a far away land, you still can’t escape your DNA. We are products of our family of origin. We can’t run away from that. In fact, looking back on the four generations of my family that have been born and raised in the United States, it seems as if the individualism which led my great-grandfather to strike out on his own and seperate from the tribe has perpetuated itself. There’s never been a family reunion. The extended members of our family rarely communicate. These are things that make me wonder.

I read today’s chapter and I picture the tribes of Jacob all camping under their respective tribal flags. Each group had to have behavioral and tribal characteristics as unique as the flags the flew above their camps. It’s genetic. It’s human. It’s the way things work.

The better I understand my tribe, the better I understand myself. The better I understand myself, the more I clearly I perceive character qualities in me which I need God’s help to change, and character qualities which I need God’s help to strengthen.

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Chapter-a-Day Numbers 1

Prologue of Samuel Johnson's Irene' by Samuel ...
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“The People of Israel did everything that God commanded Moses. They did it all.” Numbers 1:54 (MSG)

I was listening to a critically acclaimed author being interviewed on the radio yesterday. When asked what she had learned in her experience at the University of Iowa’s famed Writer’s Workshop, she mentioned that she gained an appreciation for reading well and the importance of a prologue and an epilogue.

Many people skip the brief sections at the beginning and end of a novel. Prologues set the scene and they give you a foreshadow of what follows. Epilogues tie things together and contemplate the story at its conclusion.

As I read today’s chapter, I remembered the author’s words because I felt like I was reading the prologue to the Book of Numbers. The scene is being set. Around two million former slaves are living in tents in the wilderness of the Sinai peninsula. In two years and two months time they’ve been organized into their twelve tribes and taken a good census to know who they have and how many are present. Through Moses a rule of law has been established along with a religious system revolving around a large tent sancturary which can be torn down to travel with them.

This prologue to the book of Numbers ends with the statatement that the people had done everything God asked of them. In other words, they were off to a good start.

Starting well is not an issue for most of us. We can start most anything. Each New Year’s we can pen a prologue about the good start on our diet, exercise, weight loss, organization, debt reduction, savings, project, etc., etc., and etc. Getting off to a good start is the easy part. Most people start life with cute baby pictures tucked in sweet baby books filled with cuddly memories and loads of promise.

The real question is this: when my body is laying in a casket and the final chapter of my life story has been written, what will be said in the epilogue?

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 27

International Money Pile in Cash and Coins
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“A tenth of the land’s produce, whether grain from the ground or fruit from the trees, is God’s. It is holy to God.” Leviticus 27:30 (MSG)

When I was small, I was taught to give God ten percent of what I made in an offering. I received a box of envelopes from the church just to be a weekly reminder to give a portion of my newspaper route and lawn mowing income back to God. When my daughters were young, I taught them the principle of giving ten percent to God, putting ten percent in savings and learning to budget and live on eighty percent.

It’s funny to think that there are still pieces of our lives, our faith, and our culture that are still rooted in Levitical laws given by Moses 3500 years ago. There is, of course, no magic to giving the ten percent, first-fruits “tithe” of income to God. In fact, Jesus upped the ante on a regular basis, urging followers give everything to God. Offering a portion of our income back to God is spiritually profitable on a number of levels. It reminds us that what we “own” really belongs to God, it provides for the well-being and needs of those less fortunate, and it reduces our propensity to be self-centered and materialistic.

Today, I’m thankful that the principle of giving was taught to me as a kid, and I’m renewing my commitment to, as Psalm 112 says, “be generous and lend freely…to scatter abroad my gifts to the poor.”

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 26

Moses and the Ten Commandments, c. 1896-1902, ...
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“If you live by my decrees and obediently keep my commandments….”
“But if you refuse to obey me and won’t observe my commandments….”
“On the other hand, if they confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors….”
Leviticus 26:3, 14, 40 (MSG)

Sometimes this life journey can be boiled down to blessedly simple steps:

  1. Obey God
  2. Disobey God

If you choosing 2. then proceed to:

3. Confess and repent.

Here endeth the lesson.

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An Artist’s Dinner Party

Table Setting
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Wendy and I played dinner hosts this past Sunday night. Since early spring I have been meeting regularly with three other artists who are on their own creative journies. Two of them are musicians, the other a writer. Over the course of our spring together we each set a goal of finishing one personal, creative project.

My project was “Ham Buns and Potato Salad,” a play script which I started two or three years ago. I got about 20 pages into it and then it stalled. So, I pulled it out of moth balls on my hard drive and began to plug away at it. A few weeks ago I finished the first rough draft and on Sunday night the guys and their wives came over for dinner and had a table reading of the script after the meal. Afterwards, one of our fellow compatriots shared a CD of three songs he’d written as his personal creative project.

The meal and conversation around the table and late into the night were awesome and would have been enough to make it a memorable feast. To hear the songs our friend wrote was incredible. The chance to hear my script read and to get thoughts and feedback of others was a blast for me. It’s one thing to hear the words in your head as you’re writing them, but there’s always a fear that what you imagined was funny or dramatic will sound die on the page when they are read by others. To my delight, people laughed at the jokes and were surprised by the twists. I was also encouraged by very specific questions and constructive criticism from our guests. The script was a first draft and I knew going in that there is a lot more work required to make it ready for any kind of production. The feedback on Sunday night gave me a blueprint for where I need to start and where I need to go. More than that, it affirmed for me that I have a good start.

Artists need other artists. We need encouragement. We need accountability. We need deadlines. We need honest feedback. To get that and a really good dinner party is a blessing. It’s been good to share this stretch of the creative journey with these three other men and to see the fruit that’s being produced from our time together.

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 25

backyard picnic with the VLs, our neighbors down the street (2008)

“The land cannot be sold permanently because the land is mine and you are foreigners—you’re my tenants.” Leviticus 25:23 (MSG)

As I write this morning, I’m sitting on the back porch of our house. The most unique part of our backyard is a privacy fence that surrounds it with a beautiful arbor in the middle which fills each year with climbing vines the produce bright orange flowers. There is a stone path which wanders through the arbor and a brick stair which takes us up to the backyard of Craig and Sue, our neighbors around the corner. The story goes that the previous owners of our house and the previous owners of Craig and Sue’s house were friends. The ladies got together every morning for coffee. Instead of walking around the corner to one another’s homes, the men made a beautiful shortcut for expedited travel between the two back yards.

It is now many years and multiple owners later. The fence and the arbor are showing their age. Yet, they stand there as a memorial to countless mornings of morning coffee between neighbors. They recall the lives, the families, the life stories which precede Wendy and me on this land, and in this house. Likewise, I look at the majestic, sprawling oak tree in our front yard and think of the sapling it must have been when the land our home sits on was purchased by Dominie Scholte and his wife Mareah in 1847. I think of the multiple children she buried not far from here.

We are such short-sighted people. Our brains become so easily fixated on our ourselves, our possessions, and the microscopic blip on the Earth’s timeline we occupy for seventy or eighty years. We think we own our land. We think we possess it and give in to the illusion that we are centers of our own universe and everything is about us. And yet, in a few short years there will be someone else sitting on or near this porch. Someone else will own this land. Tom and Wendy Vander Well will become forgotten names on an abstract, and our lives will become whispers of the forgotten past to those who inhabit the bricks and mortar we now “own.”

Thank you, God, for the reminder this morning. This house and this land are yours. They were yours before I got here. They will be yours after I leave. I am a grateful, and hopefully faithful, tenant. This world is not my home. I am simply a wayfaring stranger, in a land I’m passing through.

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 24

Dictionary

 It makes no difference whether he is a foreigner or a native, if he blasphemes the Name, he will be put to death. Leviticus 24:16 (MSG)

blas·pheme

/blæsˈfim, ˈblæsfim/[blas-feem, blas-feem] verb, -phemed, -phem·ing.
–verb (used with object)
1. to speak impiously or irreverently of (God or sacred things).
2. to speak evil of; slander; abuse.

Those who faithfully read these chapter-a-day posts are likely sick of hearing me say that God is a God of metaphor. And yet, in our journey through God’s Message I am continually amazed at how deeply this truth is woven into the very fabric of life. Words themselves are metaphors. A word, whether spoken or written, is something which stands for something else without using “like” or “as.” God’s Message refers to Jesus as the “Word.”

Consider that each morning we wake up with a blank verbal canvas, and the words that we choose to utter become brush strokes which paint a metaphorical self-portrait; they paint a metaphorical expression out of our deepest thoughts, emotions, and beliefs.

Think about all that you did yesterday. Recall, as best you can, all of the words that came out of your mouth: the conversations, the exclamations, the idle gossip, the song lyrics you sang along with in the car, the curses under your breath, the complaints, the arguments, the demands, the insults, the compliments, the private moments, and the deragatory remarks.

What kind of self-portrait do those words paint? Would others look at a summary of the words that came from your mouth and say that it is a portrait of love? Anger? Contentment? Hatred? Dissatisfaction? Gentleness? Pride? Greed? Compassion? Lonliness? Humility? Fear? Patience? Anxiety?

God takes the word we use very seriously. In fact, I believe God takes them far more seriously than we care to think about.

“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” – Luke 6:44-46

“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” – Matthew 12:36

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry….” James 1:19

I read today’s chapter and scratch my head at the extreme reaction God had towards one man’s curse. My first reaction is to think “how can God be so upset about words?” The longer I meditate on it, the more I hear God’s return question: “How can you so easily profane the power and meaning of words themselves?”

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Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 23

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 25:  A general view of the...
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“Work six days. The seventh day is a Sabbath, a day of total and complete rest, a sacred assembly. Don’t do any work. Wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to God.” Leviticus 23:3 (MSG)

I like to think that I’m the Energizer bunny. I want to think that I can keep going, and going, and going, and going. The reality is that every one of us runs on rechargeable human batteries. We can go all day, but our bodies, our brains, and our souls need sleep before we face another day.

God is a God of creative labor. God is a God of redemptive work. Today’s chapter also reminds me that God is a God of rest, and we are a creative reflection of God even in our need of it. Resting for our individual health, the health of our household, the health of our families, and the health of our community requires regular periods of rest. Each day requires a certain number of hours of rest and sleep. God also designed that we should have regular day of rest woven into our week. Regular weeks of extended rest were woven into the year. There were even prescribed years of rest woven into the fabric of time. God’s message is clear: we need rest.

Today I’m in self-examination mode. I want to works hard and enjoy the fruit of my labor, but I also want to rest regularly and rest well that I might enjoy Life abundantly.

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Memorial Day Weekend 2011

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Wendy and I enjoyed a wonderful Memorial Day Weekend at the Playhouse with the VL’s. We headed down Thursday evening and stopping in Kirksville for a gourmet dinner at Burger King. The boys loved playing “king” with their new crowns. Funny how that never gets old. A year ago I was trying desperately to get a one-year old Aaron to say “Tom,” which he flatly refused to do. Now almost two, he still refuses to call me Tom and has instead decided that I’m another grandpa, so he calls me “papa.” Wendy, however, gets to be called “Winnie.” Who said life was fair.

A good part of Friday was an homage to working remotely as the dining room table filled with laptops and cellular wi-fi cards. Work was not confined to the laptops, however, as the lawn had to be mowed along with a few other chores. We weren’t missing much, however. Friday was overcast and cool, so we definitely weren’t missing out on fun in the sun.

The rest of the weekend was sunny, hot and windy. The boys got plenty of fishing in off the dock and out of Papa Dean’s boat. Everybody caught a fish or two, though they were all pretty small. It was still fun to see Nathan’s excitement each time he pulled a fish out of the water.

On Sunday afternoon we filled up our new inflatable “relaxation station” and enjoyed the sun while our feet dangled in the cool water. The weekend also included boat rides, waverunner rides and some time at the beach at Captain Ron’s.

I forgot my camera and the VL’s left one of their bags behind which contained their camera (and all their toiletries – yikes!), so we had to make due with what we had. The pictures are from my Blackberry, so you’ll have to put up with the less than stellar quality.

Chapter-a-Day Leviticus 22

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“If anyone eats from a holy offering accidentally, he must give back the holy offering to the priest and add twenty percent to it.” Leviticus 22:14 (MSG)

I was never a “straight A” student. I did well in school, but was never overly concerned about having to have a perfect grade point average. I wanted to be a good student, but perfect grades didn’t matter that much to me. What mattered to me was not that I had memorized every factoid, brown-nosed every teacher, meticulously excelled at every class project. What mattered to me was that I was getting the big picture. I wanted to understand and internalize each subject and how it fit into the grand scheme of life.

Leviticus is a book that will drive a straight A student crazy. You can list out all of the rules and try to adhere to every one of them, but you’ll find yourself in a straight-jacket. Even God was giving the law so that the people would get the big picture: you can’t possibly live good enough lives to overcome the root problem of sin because rule keeping doesn’t change the condition of your heart.

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene some 1500 years later, the lesson had been completely lost. The straight-A, hard-core keepers of the law had created a religious class system based on who best kept all of the rules. They even went further to add rules to the rules which would ensure their power, profit and religious standing. Journey through the source accounts of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and you’ll find many example of Jesus calling all of the religious do-gooders to a legal point of order:

Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

   “‘These people honor me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me.
   They worship me in vain;
   their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

The point of Leviticus is not to get mired in the minutiae of the rules, but to see the larger truth(s) to which they point. Jesus made it clear that God’s great concern was not the keeping of the rules but the condition of the heart.

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